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Exceptions To Strict Liability

There are circumstances when someone may be held responsible for injury they have caused, even though they were not negligent, had no purpose to harm others, or even if they took proactive measures to prevent the harm. The Strict Liability principle is also called as 'No Fault Liability'.

This is against the basic rule of negligence in torts, which states that someone can only be held accountable for the act of a tort if the plaintiff can demonstrate negligence on his side and the defendant fails to refute it. Despite taking all reasonable precautions, the defendant will invariably be held liable for any harm that any hazardous item he maintained on the same piece of land causes to a person who is outside of the defendant's property line. In other words, the defendant can be held liable even if he had no knowledge of the danger.

The doctrine of strict liability was first ever established in Rylands' v. Fletcher[1] case. The defendants in Rylands v. Fletcher hired independent contractors to build a reservoir on their property. While digging, the contractors discovered abandoned mines, but they did not adequately seal them.

They poured water into the reservoir. Water subsequently spilled into the plaintiff's mines on the neighbouring property through the mineshafts. At Liverpool Assizes, the plaintiff received a favourable ruling. The House of Lords upheld the Court of Exchequer Chamber's ruling that the defendant was responsible.

Essential To Hold A Person Liable Under Strict Liability Are:

  1. Defendant brought something on his land:
    There is a difference between the things that grow/occur naturally on land or the thinhs which are artificial, in law. The defendant must accumulate the things artificially into his/her land.
  2. Non-natural use of land:
    Non-natural use of land means that there the land must be used for some specific purpose. It is not used for some general purpose. As in Rylands v. Fletcher case, the defendant got the reservoir constructed on his land. There was no act or omission on his part but the water leaked from the reservoir. There is the non-natural use of land. It is no ordinary use of land.
  3. Something likely to escape:
    The thing which is been brought into the land must likely be able to escape and cause some damage to the other person. In such case, the defendant will be liable if it happens so because it is the defendant's duty to keep the thing away from others.
  4. Damage:
    There must be some damage caused to the other person due to the escape of the thing which has been brought into the land of the defendant artificially.
Although there are certain circumstances when all the requirements of strict liability are fulfilled yet the defendant will not be held accountable under strict liability. When the plaintiff himself is himself at fault, if it is for the benefit of both the parties, is the escape of the things happen due to the act of stranger, if any statutory body authorised to carry out such particular activity, and if the thing escaped and caused damage due to the act of God. These are the exceptions to strict liability.

Defences Against Strict Liability

There are number of defences which has been developed in the rule of strict liability which has been laid down in Rylands v. Fletcher case. Under such circumstances, even if the thing escaped from the premise of the defendant, he will not be held accountable for the damages caused due to the escape.

Such circumstances are:
  • Default of the plaintiff.
  • Consent.
  • Common benefit.
  • Act of stranger.
  • Act of God.
  • Statutory Authority.

Default Of The Plaintiff:
If the plaintiff has himself done some act which led the thing, at the defendant's land, to escape and cause damage to him then the defendant will not be held liable for such damage caused to the plaintiff.

In the case of Ponting v. Noakes[2], the defendant had grown some poisonous leaves in his land. The plaintiff's horse jumped off the boundaries of the defendant's house and ate those poisonous leaves and died eventually. The plaintiff then approached the Court of Law claiming compensation under the principle of strict liability. The Hon'ble judge in this case said that the vegetation on the defendant's land did not spread to the plaintiff's land. It was the horse who jumped off the boundaries of defendant's house and ate those plant leave. Here, the plaintiff is himself at fault. Therefore, the plaintiff is not entitled to compensation.

When the plaintiff's property is damaged more by the unique sensitivity of the plaintiff's own property than by the "escape" of the objects acquired by the defendant, the plaintiff is not entitled to any compensation.

The undersea cable transmissions of the plaintiff in Eastern and South African Telegraph Co. Ltd. v. Capetown Tramways Co.[3] were interfered with by electric current escaping from the defendant's tramways. It was determined that the damage was caused by the plaintiff's equipment's unusually high sensitivity, and since such damage wouldn't happen to someone going about their regular business, the defendant was not held accountable for the escape.

The defendant will not be held accountable if the plaintiff has given his or her express or implicit consent to the existence of a source of harm and there was no carelessness on the defendant's part. In essence, it is the defendant's court-adopted defence of "Volenti non fit injuria."

In the case of Peters vs. Prince of Wales Theatre Ltd. Birmingham[4], The defendant owned a theatre and a rehearsal room linked to the same premises when the plaintiff agreed to rent a shop there. In case of an emergency, the theatre had a water storage system to put out a fire. Consequently, the water container broke because of too much frost, and the water seeped into the plaintiff's store and ruined his products.

He filed a suit claiming reimbursement of his losses from the defendant. The court in this case said that the plaintiff had implicitly agreed to the presence of the risks of a water storage tank located next to his shop by accepting the defendant's premises on rent, thus the court determined that the defendant was not accountable.

Common Benefit:
This exception of strict liability follows the principle of 'Volenti Non Fit Injuria'. The defendant will not be held accountable if the conduct or escape of the harmful thing was done for the mutual advantage of the defendant and plaintiff.

For example, if A and B are neighbours and share a water source that is on A's property, and if the water leaks and harms B, he cannot sue for damages because A is not responsible for the harm.

In the case of Box v. Jubb[5], The plaintiff, who lived in the same multi-story building as the defendant, had property damaged as a result of the defendant's reservoir overflowing, which was caused in part by the defendant's actions and in part by the neighbouring reservoir owners' actions. The water reservoirs were created with the common good of all occupants of the multi-story building, both the plaintiff and the defendant, in mind, hence the defendant was not held accountable.

Act Of Stranger:
The defendant will not be accountable under this exception if the harm was caused by an act of a stranger who neither serves the defendant nor is subject to the defendant's control. The term "third party" denotes a person who is neither the defendant's employee nor under the defendant's control or bound by any contract. But the defendant must exercise due caution in cases when the actions of the third party can be predicted. He will be held accountable if not.

For instance, if in the Rylands v. Fletcher case, the leak of water from the reservoir have occurred due to an act of any third person on whom the defendant doesn't have any control, then the defendant will not be held liable.

In Rickards vs. Lothian[6] case, unknown individuals left the tap open while blocking the waste pipe of a washbasin that belonged to the defendant but was otherwise under his control. Due to the damage the strangers had made, the water overflowed, damaging the plaintiff's belongings. As this was a stranger's act that the defendant could not have expected, the defendant was not held accountable. However, the defendant must take reasonable care and apply due diligence to stop the act from happening when the defendant may foresee the stranger's action and prevent harm from occurring.

Act Of God Or Vis-Major:

The phrase "act of God" means a situation that is unavoidable and uncontrollable by any human agency. Even with prudence and forethought, such acts cannot be stopped because they only occur for natural reasons. If the release of the toxic substance was caused by an unforeseeable, uncontrollable natural catastrophe, the defendant would not be responsible for the damage.

For instance, if there is a lake in the defendant's land but due to excessive rainfall, the water in the lake spread over the entire surrounding damaging the plaintiff's goods. In such scenario, the defendant will not be held responsible as the excessive rainfall is beyond him or any human's control. Therefore, this situation will come under the ambit of Act of God.

In the case of Blyth v. Birmingham Water Works Co[7], The defendants had built water lines that were sufficiently durable to withstand intense frost. That year, an unexpectedly harsh frost caused the pipes to burst, severely damaging the plaintiff's property. Although frost is a natural occurrence, it was decided that its unexpectedly extreme incidence may be referred to an act of God, acquitting the defendants of any responsibility.

Also, in Nichols v. Marshland[8], on his property, the defendant has a number of man-made lakes. Four of the plaintiff's bridges were lost as a result of extraordinary rain that had never before been seen in live memory causing the banks of the lakes to break. It was decided that the defendant was not responsible because the plaintiff's bridges were destroyed by an act of God.

Statutory Authority:
A defence to a tort claim is an act that was carried out with state authorization. When the action falls under the rule of Strict Liability, the defence is likewise admissible. However, statutory power cannot be used as a justification where there is negligence.

In Green v. Chelsea waterworks & Co.[9], the defendants were required by law to keep a consistent supply of water available. A few pipes broke naturally during the course of the operation and without any negligence on the side of the company, harming the plaintiff's premises nearby. The Company was not held responsible for any damages because they had been required to do so by law.

Exceptions to the rule of Strict Liability provides the defendant with remedies against being held liable under strict liability. Even if the damage caused by the act done fulfils all the requirements of the rule of strict liability but the act done includes any one of the exceptions then the defendant will have a defence against strict liability and can escape the liability of being held responsible. But the onus to prove the defences of strict liability lies on the defendant, if proven, he/she cannot be held liable.

  1. Rylands' v. Fletcher (1868) LR 3 HL 330
  2. Ponting v. Noakes 1894, 2 QB 281
  3. Eastern and South African Telegraph Co. Ltd. v. Capetown Tramways Co., 1902, UKPC 14
  4. Peters vs. Prince of Wales Theatre Ltd. Birmingham, 1942, 2 ALL ER 533
  5. Box v. Jubb, 1879, 4 Ex D 76
  6. Rickards vs. Lothian 1913, AC 263
  7. Blyth v. Birmingham Water Works Co., 1856 11 Ex Ch 781
  8. Nichols v. Marshland, [(1876) 2 ExD1]
  9. Green v. Chelsea waterworks & Co., 1894, 70 L.T. 547

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